Low Carb Diet May Reduce Knee Osteoarthritis Pain

low carb diet knee osteoarthritisNew research published in the journal Pain Medicine shows how a simple change in diet can help to ease pain associated with knee osteoarthritis. Commonly known as wear-and-tear arthritis, osteoarthritis is a condition in which the natural cushioning between joints, the cartilage, wears away.

The study conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at 21 adults (12 females, nine males) aged 65–75 with knee osteoarthritis. The study tested the effectiveness of a low-carb and low-fat diet. Study participants were asked to follow one of the two diets or to continue to eat as normal for a period of 12 weeks. Every three weeks, they were assessed for quality of life, depression, functional pain, and self-reported pain.


To test functional pain, participants with knee pain were asked to stand from a sitting position a number of times, walk a set distance, and then their knees were tested for pain response by repeated stimulation.

“The tests were meant to replicate the kind of pain that people experience on a day-to-day basis that may limit their functioning,” said Robert Sorge, Ph.D., lead author of the study and director of the PAIN Collective in the UAB Department of Psychology.

Serum from before and after the diet intervention was analyzed for oxidative stress. They found that the low-carb diet specifically increased the quality of life, reduced pain intensity, and decreased serum levels of adipokine leptin (a hormone that is produced by fat cells that plays a role in body weight regulation).

“Our work shows people can reduce their pain with a change in diet. Many medications for pain cause a host of side effects that may require other drugs to reduce. The beneficial side effects of our diet may be things such as reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes and weight loss — something many drugs cannot claim,” said Sorge.

The study was born from Sorge’s previous research in animal models that showed how a poor-quality diet had negative effects on health, recovery from injury, and the immune system. This previous study also showed a good diet could reverse many of these health concerns.

Osteoarthritis is the most prominent form of arthritis in the United States. It affects approximately 15 percent of the United States population and, because it tends to affect the lower, weight-bearing joints, it has become one of the leading causes of disability in the aging population.

Osteoarthritis Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no curative treatment for knee osteoarthritis other than knee replacement. This means that persistent pain is commonly treated with acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and opioids, all of which have extremely unpleasant side effects if used for a long period of time.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication side effects can include liver or kidney problems, high blood pressure, heartburn, stomach ulcers and pain, allergic reactions such as wheezing, rashes and throat swelling, and a tendency to bleed more, especially when taking aspirin.

The main advantage of a change of diet is that it can be done without the use of the medications, and it can be tailored to preferences and taste.


“Diet is a great way to reduce the use of pain relievers and to improve general health,” Sorge said. Diet will never ‘cure’ pain, but our work suggests it can reduce it to the point where it does not interfere with daily activities to a high degree.”

Diets such as the Mediterranean diet (a partial low-carbohydrate diet) have been shown in many previous studies to reduce inflammation in arthritis patients and self-reported pain in osteoarthritis. This previous work supports Sorge’s hypothesis that, by lowering the intake of refined carbohydrates, oxidative stress would decrease and functional pain could be improved.

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